Very early in the Gospel of Matthew, the Pharisees make their entrance.
They first appear as small time characters who seem to mingle with the crowds. At the start of the narrative, they do not say much. Yet, when they do speak up there tends to be a critical edge.
As the evangelists unfold the story of the gospel, the Pharisees are present, but they are present for the wrong reasons. Before long they start to voice complaints about the Lord and criticise his doctrine. Their complaints progressively become more bitter and sharp.
Their grievances crystalise around several themes: Sabbath keeping, is one significant theme, and ritual washing is another. But all of their criticisms ultimately boil down to one underlying root objection, namely that Jesus refuses to follow their traditions.
For a sect that gets so much attention in the gospels, modern Christian knowledge of Pharisaism is often very fragmentary. Some Christians, for example, conclude that Pharisaism is the equivalent to being a not-very-nice person. There was a great deal more to their sect than that.
Then there is the opposite side of the coin. For at least a hundred years, it has been relatively fashionable, especially within some liberal theological circles, to regard the Pharisees as essentially a misunderstood group. More than a few Western scholars have undertaken to rehabilitate the Pharisees and to provide a “defence” to the New Testament’s “prosecution”.
There is a large degree of perversity in such an approach, for while the New Testament occasionally shows individual Pharisees behaving in an honourable way, neither the apostles nor the Lord ever redeems the Pharisee sect as a viable approach to true religion. The pages of the New Testament leave us in a clear position to reject Pharisee doctrine and traditions, and indeed their whole attitude.
Moreover, the project to “rehabilitate the Pharisees” is perverse on a historical level as well. We need only consider ancient Jewish sources to find that criticisms of the Pharisees existed before (and during) the time of Jesus. Jesus was not alone in his rebukes. Similar censure also sprang from more enlightened rabbis and observers of the age.
RULE DRIVEN AND CEREMONY OBSESSED
What these ancient sources reveal is a sect that was so sunk into silly piety, clever immorality, and endless disputation over arcane rules, that it was often disliked and parodied even by rabbinical scholars at the time. If anything, the New Testament’s rebuke of the Pharisees is generous and mild.
To get a sense of the robotic nature of rule-following that Pharisaism engendered, the Jewish scholar Alfred Edersheim provides the following:
There was probably no town or village inhabited by Jews which had not its Pharisees, although they would, of course, gather in preference about Jerusalem with its Temple…
There could be no difficulty in recognising such a one.
Walking behind him, the chances were, he would soon halt to say his prescribed prayers. If the fixed time for them had come, he would stop short in the middle of the road, perhaps say one section of them, move on, again say another part, and so on, till, whatever else might be doubted, there could be no question of the conspicuousness of his devotions in market-places or corners of streets.
There he would stand, as taught by the traditional law, would draw his feet well together, compose his body and clothes, and bend so low “that every vertebra in his back would stand out separate,” or, at least, till “the skin over his heart would fall into folds”. The workman would drop his tools, the burden-bearer his load; if a man had already one foot in the stirrup, he would withdraw it. The hour had come, and nothing could be suffered to interrupt or disturb him. The very salutation of a king, it was said, must remain unreturned; nay, the twisting of a serpent around one’s heel must remain unheeded.
One of the key features of Pharisaism – which has persisted in some schools of Judaism to now – was the preoccupation of the Pharisees with bizarre rituals of purification. Washings, rinsings, and concepts of ceremonial defilement were central to Pharisaism. So extreme had they become, that their arch-rivals the Sadducees commonly taunted that “the Pharisees would soon try to wash the globe of the sun itself”.
Unsurprisingly, there was nothing particularly joyful about their sect. This is reflected in the sayings attributed to them. Ancient writers, for example, note that the Pharisees would mix their claims of purity with morbid aphorisms such as “Make haste to eat and drink, for the world which we leave resembles a wedding feast”, or, “My son, if you have anything, enjoy yourself, for there is no pleasure in Hades, and death gives no release” (Eldersheim, 1890).
The overwhelming impression left from these sources is of a sect that was mostly miserable, but had learned to take a mournful delight in their gloom. “We may not have joy,” their attitude suggested, “but at least we’re in the Lord’s will.” As if God were the author of misery too.
The washing practices of the Pharisees were derived from collections of rabbinic traditions. This vast body of material – some dating back to the Babylonian exile 500 years earlier – offered an elaborate self-help guide to being the ultimate Jew.
The traditions encompassed everything from dietary restrictions to ceremonial purification. One of the centrepiece practices was hand-washing, for which there were elaborate formulae. In fact, the practice of netilat yadayim was considered by the Pharisees and many rabbis as indispensable to righteousness.
In Jesus’ time, the observant Pharisee ritualistically washed his hands before eating any meal that included bread. A version of the ancient custom continues today among observant Orthodox and Hasidic Jews:
The ritual, known as netilat yadayim, is typically done using a two-handled cup, but any vessel will do. There are various customs regarding how the water should be poured, but a common practice is to pour twice on the right hand followed by twice on the left (this is reversed for those who are left-handed).
After the washing, the following blessing is recited:
Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with Your commandments, and commanded us concerning the washing of the hands.
The tradition is unrelated to personal hygiene, and a person is still required to perform this ritual even if his or her hands are clean. It is also customary not to speak following the recitation of this blessing until reciting the blessing for bread and partaking of some.
So important was this ritual that at least one rabbi argued that eating with unwashed hands was the moral equivalent of having sexual relations with a prostitute:
Some passages in the Talmud indicate that failing to wash hands before a meal is a significant transgression. One talmudic sage even says that eating bread without washing is tantamount to having sex with a prostitute, while another says that acting contemptuously toward this ritual causes one to be uprooted from the world.
A similar ritual (mayim acharonim) was observed after the meal had been eaten. Although not so common among Jews today, this end-of-meal washing ritual was certainly followed by the ancient Pharisees who debated fiercely among themselves regarding the minutiae of how the washing was to be done and in what order.
To those who ran afoul of their interpretations, the Pharisees attached great scorn and moral deficiency:
Indeed, the controversy was long and bitter between the Schools of Shammai and Hillel, on such a point as whether the hands were to be washed before the cup was filled with wine, or after that, and where the towel was to be deposited. With such things the most serious ritual inferences were connected on both sides.
These traditions of purification extended to many areas of daily life. The New Testament tells us that they strained all their drinking water so as not to accidentally swallow the least part of a gnat, the smallest unclean creature. No doubt adding a great deal of time and bother to the daily chore of drawing water.
These rules of ceremonial cleanliness placed the Pharisee in a position of super-righteousness. They were not merely Jews, but super-Jews. Ordinary Jews could never hope to attain this level of ceremonial rigour. Yet, for all of their piety, the gospels make it clear that the Pharisees were beset with pridefulness and a loveless disposition.
Their sect had mapped out a way to serve their nation and the world, but their system let them hate their neighbour, and permitted them to “despise others”. Far from discouraging such attitudes, Pharisaism seemed to breed them.
THE PHARISEE OF LOVE?
In Jesus’ sermon preached against the Pharisees, he begins with their unkind and rapacious attributes as they “devoured widows’ houses” while polishing up their exterior to look good before others. Yet although our Lord’s blistering malediction is unique in its scope and righteous anger, even prior to the time of our Lord there were Jewish rabbis who also wrote scathing assessments of the Pharisees.
In the Babylonian Talmud, for example, the rabbis describe seven kinds of Pharisees. Six of these are bitterly satirical, ranging from the “the bleeding Pharisee” who refuses to look left or right lest he behold some evil and so suffers repeated collisions, to the Pharisee who endlessly says, “I want to know what is obligatory for me”.
Then there is the Pharisee of fear, and the female Pharisee, but according to the Talmud, only one out of the seven is a “Pharisee from love”.
It is a damning parody, and essentially comprises a rabbinic verdict that the Pharisee sect was primarily harsh and unkind. Indeed, other rabbis speak of pharisaism as a plague, ranking it among the troubles of life. In the language of the rabbis, the sect is associated with “silly piety” and “clever sinners”.
This prideful and pietistic nature of the Pharisee sect is revealed in the Parable of the Tax Collector. From the outset, Luke tells us that the parable was narrated by Jesus especially for those who “trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others” – such people being emblemised in the image of a Pharisee broadcasting his self-praise in the precincts of the temple under the pretence of “prayer”.
The Lord’s parable neatly captures what ancient sources reveal of the Pharisee sect’s attitude toward prayer:
Nor was it merely the prescribed daily seasons of prayer which so claimed his devotions. On entering a village, and again on leaving it, he must say one or two benedictions; the same in passing through a fortress, in encountering any danger, in meeting with anything new, strange, beautiful, or unexpected.
And the longer he prayed the better. In the view of the Rabbis this had a twofold advantage; for “much prayer is sure to be heard,” and “prolix prayer prolongeth life.”
At the same time, as each prayer expressed, and closed with a benediction of the Divine Name, there would be special religious merit attaching to mere number, and a hundred “benedictions” said in one day was a kind of measure of great piety.
Self-elevation went hand-in-hand with arrogance. Disdain for others was also baked was into Pharisee theology and behaviour. For example, the Pharisees exhibited a great contempt for the uneducated since being illiterate meant that a person could not follow their sophisticated arguments or interpretations of the law. In their judgement, this left the illiterate person as little better than the Am ha-arez – the “people of the land”.
So pervasive was this attitude, that a Pharisee might even disassociate with illiterate family members:
Sufficient has been shown… [the Pharisee’s] almost unutterable contempt of the unlettered. So far did the latter go, that it would refuse, not only all family connection and friendly intercourse, but even the bread of charity, to the unlettered; [c Baba B. 8 b.]… in theory at least, it would have regarded their murder as no sin, [d Pes. 49 d.] and even cut them off from the hope of the Resurrection. [e Kethub. 11 b.]
Multi-directional hatred and contempt meant that the average Pharisee only really identified with his own small circle and the Jews who followed Pharisaic doctrine. Yet as already noted, in practice, few ordinary Jews were capable of living out the staggering number of rules of the sect which meant that Pharisaism, by its nature, became an elitist philosophy:
The Pharisees and Sadducees held opposite principles, and hated each other; the Essenes looked down upon them both. Within Pharisaism the schools of Hillel and Shammai contradicted each other on almost every matter. But both united in their unbounded contempt of what they designated as “the country-people”—those who had no traditional learning, and hence were either unable or unwilling to share the discussions, and to bear the burdens of legal ordinances, which constituted the chief matter of traditionalism.
We may properly conclude that the New Testament presentation of Pharisaism is a particularly accurate summation of their attitude and philosophy. Rehabilitation of the Pharisee sect requires a willingness to overlook titanic amounts of the historical evidence from ancient Jewish sources and contemporary writers.